De Lesseps was chosen president of the French company that worked on the Panama Canal from 1881-88. He ws chosen of course because of his stunning success with the Suez Canal. As a promoter, he was widely optimistic and because of his reputation French investors
committed massive amounts of funds. The decision to build a sea-level canal like the one in Panama proved a disaster. Thousands died and the money eventually gave out. Trying to combat rumors that Panama had an unhealthy climate, DeLesseps took Hélène and three of the children (Mathieu 9, Ferdinand 8, and Ferdinande 7) with him to Panama. [Beatty, p. 287.] They seem to have traveled through New York. At the time there may have been no direct maritime connections between France and Panama. (He may have taken more of the children to Panama. We note a portrait that appears to show seven of the children in Panama.) Given the pressence of yellow fever, one wonders about this decession, especially as he had lost children earlier. The project was eventually abandoned for political and financial reasons. A huge scandal resulted. The financial failure was one of the largest in French history. The financial crisis resulted in an investigation of the project. De Lesseps and his son Charles (1849-1923) were tried for misappropriation of funds. They were fined and sentenced to prison, but the sentences were never executed. The project of building the Panama Canal would be left to President Theodore Roosevelt and the Americans.
The need for a canal accross Panama had been apparent since the Spnish developed their empire in the Americas. Gold and silver from Peru had to be shipped to Panama and brought accross the Istmus of Pnama where it could be loaded aboard the treasures ships destined for Spain. It became of increasing interest to America adter California entered the Union. More than 2 months were needed to sail from New York to California around Cape Horn. A canal would reduce that voyage by 8,000 miles. Some already made the journey by sailing to Panama from the East Coast and then crossing the Istmus to rembark on the Pacific side for the journey to San Francisco. America and Britain agreed with the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty not to act unilaterally on such a project (1850). Such a project was, however, not feasible at the time. There was a railroad line built to facilitate crossings of the Istmus (1855).
Delesseps involved himself in a project to build a canal across the Istmus of Panama. Trying to combat rumors that Panama had an unhealthy climate, DeLesseps took Hélène and three of the children (Mathieu 9, Ferdinand 8, and Ferdinande 7) with him to Panama. [Beatty, p. 287.] They seem to have traveled through New York. At the time there may have been no direct maritime connections between France and Panama. A reader tells us, "Anyway, I have been looking through the newspaper accounts of the
travels of the De Lesseps in Panama in 1879-80. I am fairly certain the only the three elder children accompanied their father and mother. They journeyed across America to San Francisco and then down to Panama and along the railway to Colon. At one point they had to get off the train and walk across a bridge damaged by floods and embark on another train the other side. The purpose of this vist was to inaugurate the commencement of the digging of the canal. One newspaper account states that on January 1, 1880 that the daughter, 7 year old Ferdanade dug the first shovelful of earth. Another says she connected the wire to spark the detonation of the first blasting of rock. Whatever, there are two points that emerge from these reports. 1st, like today, never believe what you read in the press! They are often short on
facts. The other thing is that in those days, reports of events were often not published until months after the event. I think that the engraving of Compte and Mrs De Lesseps with Mathieu, Ishmael, and Ferdenande published in The Graphic (January 1, 1881) was taken in Panama a year before. Similarly I have a copy of a report of an interview published in the New York Times (February 15, 1878)."
Here is an egreaving of the photo of the De Lesseps elder children (figure 1). (At the time, photographs had to engraved to be reproduced in newsppers and magazines.) The photograph was taken in New York in 1880 by Jose Maria Mora, who was a Cuban exile. I suspect it was taken while returning from Panama. A HBC reader forwarding the image here comments, "The dresses the children are wearing appear to be the same as the ones worn for the Grapic picture with their parents. The children seem to be wearing 'Sunday Best' pinafores over short dresses, with fancy shoes. They are holding posies. Of note are the short hems, and no long stockings. HBC has often remarked about dating photos, that short hems were only seen in the 20th Century. That may have been the case in United States and Great Britain, but the De Lesseps children don't conform with this custom. Did children on the continent of Europe have a different fashion in the 1880s? I wondered if it was because the De Lesseps had been in hot
climates, but this was New York in winter. They spent quite a bit of time in Paris rather than the South of France where their main home was, but amongst my numerous pictures of the family, I have none showing the
childrren in long dresses nor long stockings. Regarding the photographer,J.M. Mora, on his exile from Cuba he set up a photgraphic business in New York and photgraphed many VIP's. He became a reculse in 1894 on account of mental illness and died in a mental asylum." HBC is not sure we have emphasized long hems for dresses in the 1880s. We do note that kilt suits boys wore tended to have longer hems. What does strike us as somewhat different here is that the children were not wearing long stockings. Given the pressence of yellow fever, one wonders about his decession t take children to Panama, especially as he had lost children earlier.
Ferdinand De Lesseps helped form the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique. Promotional released fed to the French press promised another soaring success. It was in promotion that DeLessesps' genius lay, not engeening. The French public, however, was not really aware of this. De Lesseps huge success with Suez led many French investors to believe that the project could not fail. The company sold stock to the excited public. De Lesseps estimated that 400 million francs would be needed. Money was borrowed and stock sold to the public. De Lesseps began work using the aleady existing train track (1882).
The Company experienced a range of serious problems. One of the most important was yellow feaver. Large numbers of workers sucumed to the disease and many others weakened to the point they could not work. The rocky soil proved too much for the French earth moving equipment. Attempts to dynamite their way through also failed. And then there was DeLesseps himself who insisted on a sea-level canal. This had brought him success with Suez. And not being an engenneer he insisted on this apprach. Finally te company decided to begin building locks (1885).
We have searched pretty well exhaustively and can find no visits of De Lesseps to Panama other than in 1880 when he travelled with his wife and the three eldest children, and in 1886 when he seems to have travelled alone. Charles, one of his sons by his first marriage may have been present. He was very much involved 3 years later when the Company went bankcrupt.
The decision to build a sea-level canal like the one in Panama proved an umitigated disaster. Thousands died and the money eventually gave out. The project was eventually abandoned for political and financial reasons. The Company declared bankruptsy and its assetts liquidated. Investors lost most of their money.
Estimates vary, but as much as 1.5 billion fFrances may have been lost in the project. A huge scandal resulted. The financial failure was one of the largest in French history.
The financial crisis resulted in an investigation of the project. De Lesseps were tried for misappropriation of funds (1893). He was found guilt and fned. He never served any jail time or paid te fine. His son Charles (1849- 1923) and others were charged with bribery. They were also found guilty, but only one actually served jail time. Charles was ordered to pay the fine of another defendant, but he was unable to raise the funds. Charles fled to London. Eventully the government agreed to a partial payment.
The bankrupt company did have assetts, but tey were of questionable worth if no one was toi cintinue the project. The assetts included equipment, maps, and the value of the land purchased by the company, includsing some that was aleady excavated. A new company was formed, the Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama (1994). They purchased the assetts. Suposedly it was formed to finish the canal. In fact, they had no intention of doing so. Their sole intention was to sell the Panama assets to the United States.
The Spanish-American War announced America's arrival on the world stage. While one of the lesser known American wars, the War had huge implications for America's world role in the 20th century. The path to war led through Cuba. Cuba was the last important Spanish colony in the Americas. The War was. however, fought in both the Alantic and Pacific. The War highlighted the need for a canal accross Panama. The United States had to operate essentially two separate navies, one in the Pacific and another in the Atlantic. The problem of sailing around the Horn meant thatvrapid redeoployment of vessels from one ocean to another was impossible.
This of course was in addition to the obvious advantage to maritime commerce.
The rising industrial power of the United States and need to connect the Atlantic and Pacific made it obvious that it would be Amnerica that would build the Canal. The potential cost of any such project almost ordained thatvit would be an American project. Britain which was obviously also interested in the project was diverted by a naval arms race with Germany. The British as a result aggeed in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty to give the United States a free hand to develop a canal (1901). The project of building the Panama Canal would thus be left to President Theodore Roosevelt and the Americans. The Americans, however, hesitated, uncertain about a Panmanian or a Nicaraguan route. Congress eventuially chose the Panamanian route and passed the Spooner Act authorizing $40 million to purchase the assetts of the failed French company.
Beatty. De Lesseps of Suez: The Man and His Times (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 334p.
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